Star Ocean: First Departure - RPG Retrospective
Star Ocean: First Departure intrigued me. It was the first time a version of the original Star Ocean had been made available in the West. More importantly? I had to get my hands on it to see if there were any characters even remotely as irritating as Lymle from its far-flung descendant Star Ocean: The Last Hope. Well, I say descendant, but the remake of Star Ocean and the Last Hope were released... ahhh, screw it. I just freakin' hate Lymle, 'kay? Oh sweet Jesus, she's got me saying it now.
Ahem. Anyways. I've played 'Til the End of Time and The Last Hope pretty extensively, and while I was never a huge fan of their characters, I did love the concept of a star-touring RPG series. First Departure, while nowhere near as grandiose as its console siblings, has some modern trappings. The graphics and sound have been updated, there are anime cutscenes, and from what I've read about the game on Giant Bomb and on various forums, the gameplay has been greatly changed from the original as well. What's here then is a fairly basic package.
First Departure is an action-RPG. You encounter enemies randomly, and you fight them in a breakaway scene, just like most RPGs. The combat is real-time, and is fairly basic. You have one button for regular attacks that can be changed depending on which direction you press the directional pad. You have magic and abilities that drain mana, and there are a handful of higher-powered skills available later in the game that act in much the same way. Your fellow characters are controlled by the AI, though you can switch on the fly to a different character if need be.
Characters level up and obtain a certain amount of skill points, which can then be allocated to a bonanza of different skills. I want to talk more about this later in the Replayability section, so skip ahead to that if you're looking for the game's highest point. There is also equipment to be found, dungeons to explore, and many a monster to be slain.
Pretty standard stuff, right? Well, keep in mind that this is a remake of an SNES RPG. It's easier to forgive the rest of the game that way - but not that easy.
First Departure starts off with a pretty breezy introduction to its characters. On a fairly medieval-feeling world, Roddick, Millie, and Dorne defend their little village from bandits, monsters, and the like. They're the town's watch, in essence. A neighboring village comes down with a mysterious disease that turns its victims into living stone. While investigating the village and the potential for a cure through an old RPG standby, the mysterious "cures what ails ya" herb, team Roddick encounters the crew of a spaceship. This spaceship crew is also investigating the disease, as it's been sent to the planet by a shady bunch of alien scumbags. Roddick and his merry crew (well, not so merry since Dorne has contracted what I affectionately call stoner's disease) accompany the spaceship crew to help find a cure for the disease, since their blood can somehow help turn the tide in a war between an Earth-based Federation and the shadowy alien figures.
This shit is never really explained again. Ever. It's insanely frustrating, as it starts off with the potential for a pretty good set-up for a story, right?
Well, forget that potential, because for the next twenty hours or so, it's pure tedious hell. In order to stop the virus, the team must jump back in time to track down a king who was apparently the first to contract it. Instead of jumping on the game's potential for starfaring RPG goodness, the player characters are instead sent back to the same planet they've just come from, just hundreds of years in the past. The majority of the game afterwards devolves into what amounts to a giant fetch quest, as you try to gain favor with the various rulers throughout the world to gain access to Asmodeus.
It's here that The First Departure becomes unforgivingly boring. Back in the days of the SNES, this quest must have been huge - and to an extent, it still is. But a huge, sprawling quest doesn't mean a damn thing if what's going on is dull, lifeless, and full of uninteresting characters and places. Roak (the world of the game) has to be one of the least lively worlds I've ever seen in an RPG. There's never a point in this game when I felt even a remote attachment to its characters, plot, or overall world, and it's by far the game's biggest problem. It's a shame, too, because some of the mechanics of First Departure are quite good. There are some purists who are going to jump on my ass for ragging on the story of a game basically from the SNES era, but let me just drop a few names off for you. Chrono Trigger. Link to the Past. Super Metroid. Those games might not have Shakespearean narratives, but you sure as hell fell in love with the stories and characters involved, and they hold up just fine today. The fact is, First Departure does not.
The Graphical Style
This is a remake of a SNES game, and has been updated to include 3D backdrops and more colorful characters. The combat has also apparently been completely redone, and looks pretty decent for a PSP RPG. Truthfully, the graphics... well, they exist. They're not awful by any means, but they never really pop out at you either. The anime cutscenes are kind of awful and I wish they'd done without them, as they add nothing to the game's overall quality. But that said, the battle animations are surprisingly solid and there are some flashy spell/technique effects that work nicely.
I like the old-school look of the characters, and there are some fluid motions that always catch me by surprise. In the buildings themselves, there are some great little touches, like the detail of the furniture or the light through the windows. Had the game more interesting environments to begin with, I think the visual style would have been great for a remake. As it is, it's merely serviceable. Have a look for yourself.
I genuinely like the score of the game. It's catchy at times. The music is the high point of the game, with plenty of plucky adventuring songs and a decent battle theme that thankfully doesn't grate on the ears. Voiceovers have been added to most of the game's major scenes, which are kind of awful in a generic anime sort of way.
But then, there are the battles. You've heard me whine before about JRPG games having their characters shout out move names ad nauseum. Well, this game does that. Endlessly. I'm purposefully avoding action JRPGs for the next few Retrospectives because I don't think I could stand one more shouted move name in a battle. It's particularly awful in this game as it seems like there's never a break. If you spam the same move three times in a row, you'll hear that move name shouted three times in a row. It's making me doubt the sanity of this RPG Retrospective project, as there are a ton of these games yet to go.
Oh, and sound effects. I kinda like the old-school sound. It's like they took the 16-bit counterparts and said, "Naw, we want just a little bit of that old flavor in here for nostalgia's sake." I can dig that.
Other than the aforementioned shouting of actions taken on the battlefield, First Departure is surprisingly light on RPG cheese, especially when compared to its shinier console brethren. None of the characters annoy me. None. Compared to the 3,605 times I wanted to punch something listening to Lymle, that's bliss, baby.
Really, the worst RPG cheese comes from the basic setup of the game's main quest. Having to collect items from each of the rulers of th realm in order to unlock the way to Asmodeus is true RPG cheese at its very core, but I'm giving the game a pass because of its age. At the time of its release, this wasn't hackneyed stuff. Just keep in mind if you go back to play it today, that basic idea will probably bore you to tears.
The coolest part about First Departure is its skill system. Each character in the game has access to bunches of skill types, and can boost these skill types with points earned through exploration and leveling. Some of these skill types give passive bonuses to stats. Others grant some cool combat bonuses or perks, such as a random chance to warp directly to an enemy or to deflect damage. Others still give characters specific non-combat abilities, like cooking or item crafting. That's the neat part, because it sounds simple right now. It isn't, and it's something I think more games should aspire to.
Say, for example, I make Roddick completely combat focused. In that case, I'd definitely want to make sure he had all the melee combat bonuses I could give him. Each of those skills can be boosted up to ten times, with the cost increasing at various points depending on the character's pre-existing tendencies. Since Roddick's very much combat focused already, his combat bonuses are cheap, and so halfway through the game, I find myself with points to burn. Now, I might decide to up his craftsmanship ability, since I don't have a character that's particularly strong in that area. But what kind of craftsmanship? Do I want him to be able to copy abilities to paper, allowing other characters to use those abilities in battle? Or do I want him to be able to craft equipment and weapons? Upgrading only one skill doesn't necessarily just boost that line of craftsmanship either, as it can affect a whole range of abilities.
Alone, that'd be a neat system - but then you add in party mechanics to the mix. See, if I've got two characters with a focus in one area of craftmanship or cooking or any non-combat ability, then the party can use group abilities. This is a souped-up version of those singular abilities, allowing for higher chances of success and neater items to be crafted. It's complex, but ultimately, it's a fantastically rewarding leveling system. It makes the game infintely replayable if you can get past the rest of the game's problems... which might not be possible, truth be told. Still, if you do find yourself playing First Departure, this is a fantastic diamond in the rough to be found and adds loads of depth to an otherwise simple game.
There are all sorts of secrets to be found in the game, too. I missed out entirely on one secret character. There are plenty of sub-plots if you've got the patience to seek them out, and the dungeons get nicely complex and rewarding by the game's end.
Overall Quality, Then and Now
Given that the remake was released back in 2008, it's not exactly an old game. Still, it IS a remake of a game released in 1998. Unfortunately, it shows. I've mentioned the dated, boring plot and the bland characters. Even factoring in that these things are essentially fourteen years old, it's no excuse. The game would have been interesting then only for its length and RPG mechanics. As it is now, I can only recommend this game be hunted down by those who are either desperate for a JRPG to play or those who have played other Star Ocean games and are looking for a history lesson in where the franchise came from.
There's some merit to be had from the ridiculously complex ability mechanics as described above, and I do think it's worthy of mention solely for that. But one neat gameplay feature does not make a quality title. There's no real heart to this game.
Total Value Versus Accessibility
The game is fairly widely available. Copies on Amazon at the time of this writing were going for as low as $9. Frankly, though, I can't recommend this one. From a purely mechanical standpoint, it's fine. There's nothing really wrong or broken with the game. But the twenty-five or thirty hours you'll sink into it could have been spent playing many other great games from either the SNES or the PSP era. Sorry guys, but this one's a dud.